AP NEWS

Does New Mexico have a cluttered Cabinet?

January 6, 2019

How many officials are in the governor’s Cabinet?

For years, some lawmakers and others in government have wondered if the real answer is: too many.

With 23 departments around the table, the governor of New Mexico has a bigger Cabinet than most of her peers, according to data compiled by the Council of State Governments.

And there could be more. In her inaugural address last week, Michelle Lujan Grisham threw her support behind establishing a department for early childhood education.

About a decade ago, Lujan Grisham sat on a working group that bemoaned the proliferation of new government departments and suggested merging several.

Whether it’s streamlining or consolidating, such measures might not save much money. The idea is that most employees would keep doing their jobs, just under the umbrella of a different agency. But analyses by task forces and legislative aides have suggested the state could save on administrative expenses by eliminating some managerial posts. The biggest benefit, past studies have hinted, might come from better management and bringing together civil servants with similar missions.

Opponents of such moves have argued that particular priorities, such as increasing tourism or caring for elders, might be overlooked if smaller departments were consumed by bigger ones. However, the task force on which Lujan Grisham sat in 2010 wrote that consolidating the Cabinet would allow the governor to preside over a more cohesive executive branch, and the public would have a clearer understanding of who is responsible for what.

Still, efforts by Republicans and Democrats to rearrange the Cabinet have repeatedly failed.

“Everybody wants change, but when you want to change something, they don’t want that change,” said state Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo, who sponsored an unsuccessful bill in 2017 to move the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management back into the Department of Public Safety.

Both agencies respond to disasters, but the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has come under scrutiny for financial problems. In a more recent analysis, Department of Public Safety officials said combining the two agencies would allow for better sharing of information and resources as well as more coordinated training for first responders.

That was one of the proposals of the 2010 task force.

In a final report to then-incoming Gov. Susana Martinez, the bipartisan group lamented that the state’s executive branch had ballooned with a surfeit of departments, agencies, boards and commissions.

But circumstances are very different than nine years ago, when task forces were scouring the state government for ways of eliminating redundant services.

The state is expecting a budget surplus, and some agencies are understaffed after years of belt-tightening.

In an interview during the days following her election, Lujan Grisham acknowledged some lawmakers would still like to consolidate departments.

“I do think that the Legislature is really interested in that, without giving me a specific proposal,” she said. “It’s just sort of a notion I’m getting, you know, being efficient, smart, aligned. They’ve seen so many of these departments in their view — frankly, I share that view — that have kind of gotten off the rails, that maybe the best thing would be to do some consolidation.”

But pointing to understaffing and other issues in departments across state government, she said the Legislature should hold off and allow her administration to ensure these agencies are doing the jobs they were set up to do in the first place.

“These are departments that have been decimated, that lack real leadership, that have serious issues that have to be addressed,” she said.

Former Gov. Jerry Apodaca pushed the last big reorganization of state government in the late 1970s. He proposed, and the Legislature passed, measures to streamline the executive branch into 12 Cabinet departments.

The Cabinet grew by several departments under Gov. Bill Richardson, including Information Technology, Veterans Services and Homeland Security.

By the end of Richardson’s two terms, the state was dealing with the fallout of an economic recession.

Richardson convened the Government Restructuring Task Force, which argued for such changes as creating one big Commerce Department that would include the departments of Tourism, Labor and Economic Development. And it called for, among other things, moving the Department of Game and Fish, which is not a Cabinet department, into another agency.

Another committee around the same time called for other steps, such as combining the state’s two education departments — one for K-12 public education and another that oversees colleges and universities — and moving the Aging and Long-Term Services Department into the Human Services Department.

There were plenty of arguments against such moves.

The Aging and Long-Term Services Department said in one analysis, for example, that moving it under the Human Services Department could give elders and people living with disabilities increased access to services by having to deal with only one organization rather than two or even three. But it also argued that the public benefits from having separate human services agencies that focus on the needs of differing populations.

And the state Tourism Commission voted unanimously against making the Tourism Department part of a larger agency. Chairman Al Lucero said at the time that prior to 1990, when the tourism agency was a division of the Economic Development Department, “the needs of the tourism industry were often left unattended as they were ‘overshadowed’ by the excitement of [bringing] new industry to the state.”

Now, state Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, is sponsoring legislation to create a department for early childhood education.

One case for creating an early childhood department is simply that no one agency has overall responsibility for the well-being of the youngest New Mexicans.

Child care, home-visiting programs, federal Head Start preschool programs, and oversight of privately run preschools and day cares fall under the Children, Youth and Families Department.

But the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program falls under the Department of Health.

Kindergarten and public school-based preschools are overseen by the Public Education Department.

Three other states — Georgia, Massachusetts and Washington — already have created Cabinet-level departments for early childhood education.

And the idea has the backing of groups including the Association of Commerce and Industry as well as the New Mexico Early Childhood Development Partnership.

“We provide early childhood education in three and a half different departments,” Padilla said. “… It’s hard to measure effectiveness.”

Combining responsibility for early childhood services in one department would save money and hold one secretary responsible, Padilla argued, while also allowing the state to better measure how much it is really spending and should spend on caring for the state’s youngest residents.

To be sure, New Mexico by no means has the most sprawling or Byzantine executive branch.

There are 42 agencies in the governor of Arkansas’ Cabinet, for example. Meanwhile, governors in Texas and Oregon do not have Cabinets per se. But New Mexico’s Cabinet is still on the larger side.

Burt said the state should evaluate each department individually. It isn’t about getting the Cabinet down to a certain number of positions but considering whether each is proving efficient.

Is a department overwhelmed? Should some of its responsibilities go elsewhere?

“It hasn’t been a serious debate up to this point, but it’s a debate we ought to have,” Burt said.

AP RADIO
Update hourly